With Blight Spirit, Tyree Guyton Transforms Trash into Murals and Crack Houses into Ghetto Galleries

updated 08/15/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/1988 01:00AM

Welcome to Heidelberg Street. Not so long ago it was a rancid little boulevard of broken dreams in the black slums of Detroit's east side. Potholes cratered its asphalt. Shells of burned-out or collapsing houses marked its borders like rows of rotting teeth. Crack houses littered the neighborhood, and vacant lots were scumbled with trash: rat-gnawed sofas, capsized refrigerators, twisted tricycles, monadnocks of shattered glass. Here and there pleasant family homes survived, but the people who lived inside were just hanging on, unable to leave, unable to fight the blight.

Then one day in the summer of 1986, a tall, quiet, 32-year-old black man named Tyree Guyton stepped out on his porch, surveyed his depressing environment and recalled with a jab of anguish that the block had once been "really beautiful, with well-kept houses on all the lots and happy kids playing in the street." Then and there he declared a private war on urban decay. "I had no plans," he remembers. "It just happened. I heard a voice, and I did what the voice told me." Since Guyton was a trained painter and sculptor, the voice quite sensibly told him to combine slum clearance with environmental sculpture. To create a cityscape nearer to his art's desire. To become, in short, the Rembrandt of refuse, the Giotto of junk.

Did he ever. In less than two years Guyton has transmogrified a slum into a sprightly yet sardonic and sometimes darkly disturbing gallery of ad hoc art. Walk along the sidewalk, and what do you see? Battered suitcases nailed to tree trunks. Look ahead. Out of a vacant lot surges a humongous sculpture of dented oil drums daubed with a rainbow of stripes. Fireplugs are swathed in stripes. Dots adorn STOP signs. Spots, swirls and spatters transfigure the rutted surface of the street. Drive through. The broken pavement unrolls beneath the car like an immense illuminated scroll.

And that's just the backdrop. Junkist Guyton has made his major statements on the sides of four abandoned houses. On the house next to his own he has nailed or glued at random a ludicrous yet somehow touching array of rubbish: pieces of plumbing, damaged mannequins, legless chairs, treadless tires, faded signs, wobbly crutches, broken toys, stuffed animals that have lost their stuffing. "It looks," said one visitor, "as though the house has been turned inside out." In the spaces between the objects, Guyton has continued the childlike motifs that cover the roadway. Why are a few spaces still empty? "I just wait," says the artist, "for the house to say something to me. It's still talking."

Some people on Detroit's east side wish Guyton would stop listening. "I think what he's doing is ridiculous!" fumes District Councilman Conrad Herndon. "It's some psychedelic trip he's on. He needs to be confined. This is hurting the neighborhood, not helping it." When an associate suggests that Guyton's work might not look "so bad" if it were down by the river, Herndon snorts, "Yeah. So you could push it in."

Such talk outrages most of Guyton's neighbors. "I love what Tyree's doing," says an unemployed mother named Audrey Johnson. "He's got people talkin' about Heidelberg Street. Someone once said to me, 'This is a nightmare.' I said, 'This ain't no nightmare. This is your dreams. It's fantasyland!' " What's more, fantasyland's fame is spreading. "So many white folks come by now," says Guyton. "The other day a caravan of suburban women, must've been about 40 of 'em, came to look at my work. To see this! Oh, they were a little nervous at first. I saw one woman turn her diamond ring. But after a while they felt comfortable."

The art community, too, is starting to take notice. Hope Palmer, a teacher at Detroit's Center for Creative Studies, leads her classes on field trips to examine Guyton's work. "Look at this stuff!" she gasps. "You see it lying on the freeways every day, but he's given it form and color. One man's junk is another man's method of dreaming. It's an absolute revelation. He's transformed the area." So far, though, no art critics have deigned to visit Guy-ton's gutter gallery, and hardly anybody has noted in his work its revolutionary subtext: Like trash redeemed, the wretched of the earth will surely rise again.

Guyton feels no need to press the point. He cares more about art than politics—"I want more black folks to be exposed to modern art," he says—and most of all he wants to revive a sense of community on Heidelberg Street. In that, he seems to have succeeded. When he sets up a sculpture in an empty lot, neighbors mow the weeds and donate trash cans and benches. "It's made this neighborhood safer," says Audrey Johnson. "We couldn't walk at night—you never knew who was hidin' in the weeds. Now we have people out at all hours."

When fire swept one of the empty lots, neighbors formed an instant bucket brigade and rescued a sculpture from the flames. Some even hanker to collude in the act of creation. "So I hand 'em a brush," says Guyton, "and they do their thing."

Almost every day he hands a brush to his 91-year-old grandpa, Sam Mackey, a hearty old party whose specialty is stripes. "Grandpa was a house-painter," Guyton explains, "and when I was 8 years old, he stuck a paintbrush in my hand. I felt as if I was holding a magic wand." But the artist traces his graphic style to his mother. "We were poor," he says. "She had 10 kids and raised them by herself. Clothes, furniture, everything came from a secondhand store or was given to us. On the floor we had squares of linoleum. On the sofa there were stripes. On a chair there were polka dots. Nothing matched, but my mother made it work. Today I paint with stripes and polka dots, and it works too."

After two years of stateside duty in the Army, Guyton took a job at a Ford factory, studied art in the evening and then earned a B.A. in fine arts from the University of Chicago. For a time he made architectural drawings and models for a living, but all the while he longed to paint. So one day his wife, Karen, said, "Then paint. Whatever you want to do, do it!" Feisty, petite and 44, Karen is a hairstylist who colors her toenails blue and lives in a state of perpetual emotion. "I've been behind Ty from day one," she announces. "He may have had no money when I married him, but he had his mind, and I stuck with him."

Grandpa chimes in, "You can stick and stay and it will pay."

Karen resumes: "Ty's different. Most guys look at other women. He looks at junk. Like one night I'm drivin' along and he yells, 'Stop the car! Stop the car! Look at that toilet!' " All three guffaw with delight. "So I don't mind supporting him now," she declares. "It's gonna pay off one day." Husband and wife gaze at each other and beam.

In fact, the payoff has already begun. In the past two years, Guyton has sold 15 junk sculptures for an average price of $600. (Recently a customer paid him $200 for his assemblage of a toy airplane hanging inside a birdcage—and an additional $100 to climb up and pry it off the roof of an abandoned house.) But making money matters less to Guyton than making a difference.

"See that house over there?" he says. "That was a crack house. People drove by all hours of the night. The police raided it four times. After the first three raids, it opened right up again. After the fourth raid, we couldn't stand it anymore. So we went on over and painted the place. Pink, blue, yellow, white and purple dots and stripes and squares all over it. Up there on the roof we stuck a baby doll and that bright blue inner tube, and on the porch we put a doghouse with a watchdog inside. A teddy bear wearing a football helmet. Now all day long people drive by and stop to stare at the place." With a wide smile he concludes, "Believe me, in front of an audience like that, nobody's gonna sell crack out of that house anymore."

—By Brad Darrach, with Maria Leonhauser on Heidelberg Street

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